We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Identity crisis

A row about ID cards lasted years and cost the UK billions. Then Theresa May scrapped them

Critics labelled it as an attempt to bring in a compulsory ID system ‘by stealth’. That argument may sound familiar…

A ROW IS brewing over the public services card ahead of the resumption of the Dáil and Seanad next month.

Civil liberties campaigners have raised concerns about the card after confirmation that possession of one will soon be required in order to obtain a driving licence or a passport.

Data protection experts have complained that that the government is attempting to create an ID card system “by stealth”, and Fianna Fáil has called for a debate on the issue to take place in both houses of the Oireachtas.

The card is not new – it was originally introduced in 2012 – but its rollout is coming under renewed focus after a number of cases (see below) which saw people lose out on public services because they don’t have one.


In the UK, attempts to introduce ID cards rumbled on for nearly a decade – causing numerous headaches for prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as they attempted to bring in various versions of the scheme in the face of fierce opposition.

From the inception of the plan to the eventual, limited introduction of the cards, the dispute played out over an eight year period from 2002.

The scheme was scrapped entirely with the election of David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Conservative-Lib Dem government in 2010.

Here’s what happened…

David Blunkett leaving the House of Commons Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett spearheaded plans for a national ID card. Andrew Parsons Andrew Parsons

‘Fighting benefit fraud’

Tony Blair’s Labour government had proposed the idea of national ID cards after 9/11 as a way of combatting terrorism.

The initial plan was shelved, but a new version was introduced by Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2002. It was now being described as an ‘entitlement’ card which would be used to combat social welfare fraud.

A public consultation was launched: despite the fact that almost two-thirds of the 7,000 submissions were against the idea, Blunkett said he was pressing ahead with the project.

Blunkett pressed for legislation to be included in the 2003 Queen’s Speech, which traditionally sets out the priorities of the UK government for the coming year, but Blair’s cabinet was split on the issue.

The Home Secretary insisted the cards would ensure “people don’t work if they are not entitled to work, they don’t draw on services which are free in this country, including health, unless they are entitled to”.

Plans to bring in a national ID system were eventually outlined in the Queen’s November speech – but the scheme was to be delayed until later in the decade so that biometric data could be included.

parliament2 Tony Blair and Conservative leader Michael Howard in 2004. EMPICS Entertainment EMPICS Entertainment

Lost votes

Blunkett resigned and was replaced by Charles Clarke in 2004, but the new Home Secretary insisted he would press ahead with the ID card plan: legislation continued to make its way through parliament.

Labour suffered several defeats on the legislation in the House of Lords in 2006. In one such vote, Tory and Liberal Democrat peers managed to strike down plans to link the card to passport applications – insisting the government was trying to bring in compulsory ID cards “by stealth”.

Lady Kennedy, a human rights lawyer and Labour party rebel, had argued that the measure amounted to introducing compulsory ID “by the back door”. The legislation would have required all passport applicants to enter their details on a national identity register.

Labour ministers had warned the peers they ought to follow parliamentary convention and green light the measure, as it had featured in the government’s election manifesto. Opponents, however, said that the manifesto had promised a voluntary scheme, whereas the one being proposed would have to be accepted by anyone applying for a passport.

By the end of the year Tony Blair was still insisting the identity card scheme should go ahead for reasons of “modernity”. At a press conference, he also stressed the personal benefit of having an ID card, saying it would do away with the need to produce other documents to prove your identity.

ID Card Protest A mock-up ID card for Tony Blair is burned at a protest in November 2004. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Foreign Nationals

After a 2006 compromise that allowed the bill to pass through the Lords, the rollout began in 2008 as ID cards became compulsory for foreign nationals.

A trial plan to make the cards mandatory for pilots and airside staff at London City and Manchester airports was dropped the following year, after union opposition.

Alan Johnson, who had by then taken over as Home Secretary, conceded that the cards should not have been sold as the “panacea for tackling terrorism” and said that had been a factor in “messing up” the debate.

“People who worked airside were resenting the fact there was compulsion involved,” Johnson said – although he insisted the ID scheme was still very much alive.

As the BBC reported at the time, the government had always envisaged that the scheme would eventually be compulsory. It had always insisted, however, that the cards would not be made compulsory without MPs being allowed to vote on the issue – and it was never proposed that it would actually be mandatory to carry one at all times.

Prime Minister at the Passport Office Tony Blair undergoes a biometric test at the Passport Office in London. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

‘Not compulsory’

A year after they were rolled out for foreign nationals, the final design of the card was unveiled to the public in 2009 and they were offered at first to members of the public in Greater Manchester.

The cards, which were available from £30, would be launched nationwide in 2011 or 2012, the government announced. Home Secretary Alan Johnson helmed the regional launch in July 2009, saying:

“The introduction of ID cards today reaches another milestone, enabling the people of Manchester to prove and protect their identity in a quick, simple and secure way.

Given the growing problem of identity fraud and the inconvenience of having to carry passports, coupled with gas bills or six months worth of bank statements to prove identity, I believe the ID card will be welcomed as an important addition to the many plastic cards that most people already carry.

The opposition described it as a “colossal waste of money” and civil liberties campaigners said it was “as costly to our pockets as to our privacy”.

POLITICS ID PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

The end

As the rollout continued, the scheme was extended across the North West and to 16- to 24-year-olds in London in 2010.

By May of that year there were around 15,000 cards in circulation.

The same month, David Cameron became Prime Minister following a general election and his Home Secretary Theresa May announced she was scrapping the cards. A separate but similar scheme for foreign nationals would continue.

The entire project was estimated to have cost £5 billion – although the London School of Economics estimated at the time that the true cost could be far higher.

Women of the Year Lunch and Awards 2010 - London Theresa May pictured in 2010.

The debate hasn’t entirely gone away, however.

At the beginning of last year Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP, asked then-Immigration Minister James Brokenshire whether he would consider ID cards as a way of combatting the growing terror threat in Europe.

The idea was dismissed by Brokenshire, who responded:

There are steps that we are taking through various measures to enhance the security of this country but our judgment remains that ID cards is not the right way forward.

This summer, it was announced that EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit would need to apply for a new residence document to prove their right to stay in the country.

Again the familiar ‘by stealth’ argument raised its head – as opponents accused the government of trying to bring in ID cards “by the back door”.

“It is not an ID card,” Brexit Secretary David Davis insisted in the House of Commons.

We are talking about documentation to prove that people have the right to a job and the right to residence, but they will not have to carry that around all the time. It is not an ID card; it is rather like your birth certificate. It’s not an ID card!

EU referendum Brexit Secretary David Davis (right) alongside Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Here at home, both main opposition parties have called for a debate on the issue of public services cards.

Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said this week that there were “very considerable and legitimate concerns regarding privacy and sharing of sensitive data”. Fianna Fáil’s Seanad spokesperson for Social Protection Catherine Ardagh said it was essential both houses of the Oireachtas had an opportunity to debate the matter.

Read: Minister says Public Services Card is ‘not compulsory but is mandatory for services’ >

Read: Pretty soon you’re going to need this card to do a whole load of important things in Ireland – but why? >

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel